My Saturday column in The National, dated Sep 12, 2015 (online version here). All comments welcome.
Is it still OK to be shaken and stirred by Bond?
The James Bond circus is kicking into life again. Spectre, the next blockbuster in the Ian-Fleming-based franchise, hits our screens in October. Already, the trailers throb with impeccable tailoring, sportscars used as guided missiles, and purring, Euro-accented superbaddies, with Daniel Craig looking more and more like one giant knuckle wrapped in a white tuxedo.
Since I was of an age to watch them, I’ve rarely missed a Bond movie. But like most thoughtful modern male viewers, our boyish nostalgia-trips have to be increasingly diluted by critical and historical awareness. Beneath its customary wit and glamorous violence, we’d be right to be both shaken and stirred by the undercurrents in a Bond movie.
The scholars have come to a settled judgement on Fleming’s original Bond novels: they were a pop-cultural compensation for British imperial decline. At the mid-fifties height of American Cold War power, and with debacles like Suez still fresh in the mind, Bond took the lead in fighting cat-stroking international baddies. The US agents were - of course! - firmly subservient.
This was also a Britain still marked by post-war austerity. Bond’s mix of sex and snobbery - the right suits, drinks and gentleman’s club rituals, leavened with episodes of briskly-executed lust - proved irresistible to millions of readers, mired in the daily grind. (Scotland’s Mark Millar had huge fun in last year’s Kingsman, showing how manners - not breeding - maketh the rapacious, well-tailored killer…especially if he starts out as a kid from the schemes).
The Bond movie franchise seems to refresh itself for every era. 2013’s Skyfall was the biggest grossing UK film ever made, and one of the 14 that have ever grossed over £1billion worldwide. Something still must be clicking.
At least on these islands, the continuities are a little depressing: the boxes of austerity and post-imperial angst are still eminently tickable. Humdrum white-collar company men (or GQ buyers) continue to tingle at the sheer masculinity-max of it all, susceptible to the merchandise (cars, watches, perfumes, clothes, mobile phones) that may get them a step closer to Bondhood.
And the UK establishment still pathetically yearns to punch above its (feather) weight - dropping bombs to clean up its messes in the Middle East, commissioning nukes to cling onto its geopolitical status, sticking close to US foreign policy. Surely, if the UK took a more progressive and modest global role, some key sinews of credibility would snap for the Bond franchise. For many of its global viewers, the bathos of the super-Brit’s action-heroics must veer a little close to Austin Powers territory already.
There’s no doubt that, ideologically, Skyfall pushed open the cracks in the Bond facade; director Sam Mendes got some of his North London liberal-left fingers in. The scenes of soldier’s coffins draped with Union Jacks; the bombing of the top terrace of MI6 building at London’s Embankment; the hauling of M (Judi Dench) before the press to “account” for her failures.
And as is the self-referential way of things these days, Skyfall’s final battle scenes take place on Bond’s Scottish estate. This is accurate to the Ian Fleming legacy (his grandfather was a Scottish merchant and financier from Dundee). It’s also doubtless a nod to Sean Connery, whose Bond performance spent half its time raising eyebrows at the very Englishness it was supposed to exemplify.
The trailer clips and story outline for the forthcoming movie, Spectre, highlight another, more universal attraction of the Bond-world, beyond these piddling island insecurities. As any 007 fan will know, Spectre stands for “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”; its logo is the octopus, classic symbol of a monstrous controller with many tendrils of power.
Fleming originally dreamt up Spectre in the early 60’s because he didn’t want to date his novels in the Cold War (which he believed, at the time, might end quite soon). But of course, the “secret international conspiracy” has a long and fetid history.
For those who wish to critically analyze and challenge the dominant power structures from below, conspiracy thinking is a moment of intellectual weakness. The operations of media, finance, government and army/police seem so implacable and interlocked, so resistant to democracy or protest, that the only explanation must be a shadowy group of powerful coordinators across all sectors - the “Jewish Lobby”, Davos, the Bilderberg Group, David Icke’s lizards…or indeed, some other “spectre”.
So, as one megalomaniac mogul after yet another criminal network attempts to suborn the “free world”, Bond crashes, shoots, fights, shags, schmoozes and gadgets his way across all five continents. Usually coming face to face with these evil technocrats at the end of every movie, Bond brings them down through a warrior’s skill and cunning. Hurrah! Yeah, right.
Daniel Craig’s take on Bond resonates with the present because, it seems to me, he embodies our ambivalence about enjoying the (temporary) victory of one warrior against the system. Has a Bond body ever been so buff and objectified, but also so battered and even tortured, as his? Craig’s Bond is constantly on the verge of leaving the job, with dependencies and weaknesses roiling under the tuxedo’d swagger.
Of course, with Aston Martins hurtling through the air, and long snogs with Monica Bellucci on tap, this is called having your self-critical cake and eating it. You might think that one further nail in the Bond coffin would be the era of digital whistleblowing. Assange, Manning and Snowden have revealed the extra-judicial behaviours of those less cuff-linked than Bond.
But they’ve also shown that we live in a networked society which could enable a potentially infinite surveillance. Crunch enough big data, and you can despatch a drone to take out the Blofield equivalents. And as some monitoring of cloud activity has shown, you can even anticipate where the trouble will begin in the first place - before the “troublemakers” even properly get their act together.
007 lives perpetually in the shadows - and one of the guilty thrills of Bond over these many decades has been to watch how nakedly power can operate, beyond accountability of any kind. Yet the times have profoundly changed.
I wonder whether Mendes, or any director, will expose a 21st century Bond to the world of sunlight - that is, the active, creative, digitally-empowered citizens who power our modern social movements. The recent record on Bond and progressive politics hasn’t been, to put it mildly, encouraging. The pious environmentalist in Quantum of Solace, Craig’s second Bond movie, turns out to be - who’d have guessed? - a water-hoarding global blackmailer.
We don’t need yet another Bond movie reviving his relationship with Pussy Galore. But I’d like to see one that sits him down in a conversation with Pussy Riot.
“You are a kite, dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond”, says one of the Spectre operatives in a recent trailer. But I’d like to think that “hurricane” might as well be the demands of educated, creative, connected individuals, questioning the behaviour of traditional power-elites, in country after country. As much as it might be nehru-suited megalomaniacs, fingers hovering over their big red “destroy" buttons.
I’m guessing the actor Daniel Craig would relish the chance to publicly deconstruct the Bond persona this way. But in reality, mid-speech, I’d predict a sudden poison dart to the neck of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, eyes disappearing into her head as the gunfight starts.
Because the franchise - whether that be an outmoded model of how a state exercises power and influence in the modern world, or the Bond movies themselves - must keep rolling.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).